The noisy shoes with the metallic heels make only a few brief appearances, but nevertheless there’s a whole lot of tap-dancing going on at the Barrymore Theater, home to “Imaginary Friends,” Nora Ephron’s odd doodle of a play about dueling literary lionesses Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy.
The tap-dancing? That would be, most obviously, Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia’s songs, which are performed by a small but lively chorus of singers and dancers. Doing foxtrots of their own are the bright, clever and mobile sets by Michael Levine, wrapped in enough red velvet to blanket Broadway. Robert Morgan’s pretty silk dresses and chic wool suits provide some diversions, as do a pair of puppets — yes, puppets — who make a few appearances.
All of the above is beautifully orchestrated by high-flying director Jack O’Brien (“Hairspray”) to provide a splashy backdrop for the hard-working performers at center stage, Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones, two beaming bright lights of the contemporary stage.
But all this theatrical ingenuity and allure is, in the end, little but fancy window dressing. It feels like a diversionary tactic to distract us from the inevitable discovery that at the center of all this color and movement is a superficial, theatrically lifeless text. Making the move from screen to stage, Ephron proves unable to manufacture a viable drama from her meaty material, which takes as its natural jumping-off point the lawsuit filed by Hellman over McCarthy’s infamous announcement on Dick Cavett’s TV show that every word Hellman wrote was a lie, “including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”
That scandalous moment in American literary history is re-enacted fairly early on in “Imaginary Friends” (with Jones spliced into the video opposite Cavett), but it also provides the play’s climax. In between, we romp, in roughly chronological order, through the lives of the famous playwright, who was possibly more famous for her self-serving autobiographies, and the somewhat less well-known novelist and memoirist, who topped bestseller lists with the soapy novel about her Vassar days, “The Group.”
Special focus comes to rest on the first meeting between the two, when McCarthy accused an already established Hellman of lying about John Dos Passos’ motives to entertain a crop of schoolgirls, as well as incidents from the childhood of both women that are presented as having deep implications for their emotional and intellectual development. McCarthy was accused by her disciplinarian uncle, who raised her after the sudden death of both her parents, of stealing a tin butterfly from one of her brothers. She didn’t do it; hence her lifelong championing of truth-telling. Frolicking in a fig tree one day, Hellman spied her daddy kissing someone he shouldn’t. Her nurse told her to fib about it — and Hellman just kept on fibbing.
Those tidy little explanations come toward the end of the play. While we’re actually witnessing Kurtz and Jones separately re-enact these childhood traumas, in little-girl dresses, more than once, the events don’t have much impact — we mostly wonder at all this bother about the tin butterfly and the fig tree (the latter actually gets its own song in Hamlisch and Carnelia’s pleasant-enough pastiche score).
And yet even the more obviously momentous turning points in these writers’ lives are mostly reduced to comical cartoons. Hellman’s affair with Dashiell Hammett, McCarthy’s marriage to Edmund Wilson, their various literary successes and political set-tos — all make appearances in vignettes staged by O’Brien with as much vaudevillian flair as he can muster. But one can only wonder if the lives of these two complicated, intellectually formidable women are best served by being presented in the format of a TV variety show. (A sample bit finds McCarthy musing, “For many years, most of my life, really, I tried to figure out why I married Edmund Wilson. He was, of course, brilliant. Say something brilliant, Edmund.” “Something brilliant,” he says.)
The songs, while charmingly performed, generally feel tangential to the proceedings, even when they take off from central themes, as in “Fact and Fiction,” in which a pair of hoofers embodying those two entities sing a duet. “A fraud is a fraud,” sings Mr. Fact. “What if it takes a fib to get the folks to applaud?” retorts his partner.
When they are directly addressing the audience, or sniping at each other, the women often display the sharp wit we expect. Ephron peppers the dialogue with amusing flourishes, as when Lillian chastises Mary for moving to Paris: “Always a mistake to fall in love if it means giving up a rent-stabilized apartment in New York City.” Or Mary, speaking of the women’s diverging politics during the rose-colored days of the 1930s, says, “I would never have made a true Marxist — it’s something you have to take up early, like ballet.” (That line is a direct McCarthy quote.) But both characters spend far too much of the time playing tour guide to their lives (“In 1963, I published a bestseller called ‘The Group.’ It was made into a movie, It was a novel about a group of women who’d gone to Vassar together. …”). In the end, we have a fine sense of what they did, but less insight into who they were.
This is not to slight the work of Kurtz and Jones, who are engaging tour guides. Kurtz nicely evokes Hellman’s mannish manner, brandishing her ever-present cigarette like a Colt .45 and barking out Hellman’s retorts in a smoky drawl. Jones naturally exudes an intelligence that makes her a good fit for the famously “whip-smart” McCarthy. The feline smile and twinkling eyes are those of a woman savoring her next bon mot. But the actresses must labor pretty hard to animate the exposition-heavy text, and the format gives them little scope to really get into the hearts or minds of the characters.
The play darkens in tone toward the close, as both women muse on the quirks in their characters that made them peculiarly susceptible to each other. After a fantasy courtroom scene in which McCarthy calls to the witness stand the woman whose life story apparently was swiped by Hellman for the famous Julia in her memoir “Pentimento,” McCarthy suggests the fictional Julia “was the person you might have been if you hadn’t been the person you were.” Hellman then asks, “Who would you have been? If they hadn’t lied to you?” “A better novelist, perhaps?” McCarthy replies.
In fact, both women were brilliant enough as it was, which is why Ephron’s play is such a disappointment. Between them they constitute a veritable encyclopedia of the literary and political history of 20th-century America, so it is surprising indeed that in “Imaginary Friends,” they come across as little more than a peppy pair of intellectual paper dolls.